Prescriptive and descriptive writer’s advice

In my earlier post on advice to fiction writers, I drew an analogy with the difference between an algorithm (a mathematical ‘recipe that always works’) and a heuristic (a search strategy that usually works, but may not necessarily be the optimal one for the case at hand).

Another analogy can be drawn: the difference between descriptive and prescriptive language standards.

A number of the major Western languages have prescriptive standards: a centralized body serves as the final authority on how the language should be spoken and written. For instance, the Académie Française, among its other activities, also regulates correct spelling, grammar, syntax, pronunciation… of the French language. German has a Rat für Deutsche Rechtschreibung (Council for German Spelling — note its more limited mandate), and Hebrew the Academia la-Lashon ha-Ivri (Academy of the Hebrew Tongue/Language).

In contrast, English has no prescriptive standard at all. Instead there are two competing descriptive standards: the Oxford English Dictionary (for the Queen’s English) and Merriam-Webster (for American English) are based not on how things should be written (from a theoretical-linguistic point of view) but on how the language is actually used. This is, by the way, one of the main reasons for the maddening irregularity of English in some respects — its mixed Romance-Germanic heritage is another. (English could be called the “mutt” of world languages.)

Likewise, advice to writers — be it from books, workshops, blogs,… — basically comes in two kinds: prescriptive and descriptive. “Prescriptive” advice usually derives from literary pretensions, ideological agendas, or both, and often the ones most vocal about it have little in the way of published output that anybody actually wants to read. (One subtype has been called “grey goo fiction” by the Beautiful but Evil Space Princess :))

“Descriptive” advice does something else: it analyzes the work of successful entertainment fiction authors, and tries to distill down what they actually do into guidelines. Again, one must beware of absolutism: what works for most writers may not work for you or your chosen genre.

In the days when a handful of big publishing houses ruled the roost, prescriptive standards held more sway as a book often got nowhere if the major publishers nixed it. Now that effectively independent publishing has eaten deep into their market share, at least within the US (especially for eBooks), descriptive standards will be more relevant than prescriptive ones. And even so, a book could in principle violate all the established conventions and still become a bestseller if it compels enough readers to keep reading.

There is no such thing as “the way a novel should be written”. But a lot of empirical wisdom can be obtained from what has worked for others. If one is wary of following any sort of “advice book”, one might instead reverse-engineer one’s own rules from what has worked for other books in the category one seeks to write in. Such “bulk reading to learn the rules” has its own risks, namely that of churning out warmed-over fan fiction. There is a reason I deliberately chose a genre far outside my usual reading fodder for my first long-form writing project 🙂

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